Lovers gonna love. Haters gonna hate. Class D amplification certainly polarises opinion. But I guess that’s true of so much in audio.
$12,000 – this includes carriage from the US, import duty and VAT – buys you a pair of Merrill Audio VERITAS monoblocks; perhaps the most radical solid state monoblocks that I’ve heard in recent years. According to conventional wisdom, because they are Class D the Merrills should sound like digital poo. That they don’t, but in fact provide a generous measure of what a lot of solid state enthusiasts look for in their amplification, makes them deserving of some serious consideration.
The Merrill VERITAS monoblocks deliver 400 Watts into eight Ohms, 700 into four and 1,200 into two Ohms. They are implacably, unimpeachably neutral, vanishingly quiet and compared to class A and A/B amps they use so little power for each Watt of output that you could almost get your pet hamster on its exercise wheel to make enough electricity to keep them going. The louder you play them the more efficient they become. For maximum volume, and just so you don’t overwork the little creatures and fall foul of the RSPCA, you’ll probably need a small herd of hamsters rather than just one.
That I could not relax enough in the company of the Merrill amplifiers to surrender totally to them may say more about me and my preferences than it does about the VERITASs. Some people love them. Dagogo.com executive editor Lawrence Borden apparently bought not just one but two pairs of VERITAS for use in his home after he had heard them.
Merrill Audio in New Jersey was founded by Merrill Wettasinghe. The endorsement of North American reviewers like Borden no doubt helps the confidence Wettasinghe has in his product, but at the same time he’s nothing if not a pragmatist and a realist. And he’s a delight to deal with too; gentlemanly and refreshingly open.
Knowing from our initial exchanges via email that I am a SET fan he issued the standard Merrill Audio health warning: “These are not for tube lovers. They seek audio purity, not colouration.” Even so, if I really wanted to review them he’d be happy to send me a demo pair.
Offering him my reaction to what I was hearing after the amplifiers had been with me for two weeks or so, I asked him how others had responded. “It is a mixed bag with tube and solid state audiophiles. I have had many converts from tubies to the VERITAS and also many tubies who don’t care for the VERITAS while I have had some solid state guys tell me the VERITAS is too warm.”
If little else evokes sympathy within us then this statement surely must, illustrating as it does the maddening fickleness of the buying public. How does any audio manufacturer decide where in the market to pitch its tent?
Class A and A/B amplification can be easily built from discrete components, but because of its switching speed Class D requires miniaturised circuitry, and surface mounted components, and therefore specialist manufacturing, not to mention seriously informed know-how in order to make it sound good. If a company like Merrill Audio aspires to offer class D amplification then there are, relatively speaking, not that many providers of core electronics in town. Wettasinghe’s supplier of choice is Dutch designer and manufacturer Hypex, run by Belgian digital whizz Bruno Putzeys who is fast developing poster-boy status among the Class D cognoscenti for his achievements. Go here if you think you might wish to join the Putzeys appreciation society: http://www.brunoputzeys.be/
Hypex’s currently top Class D module is the NC1200, designed of course by Putzeys. In the VERITAS amplifiers Wettasinghe teams it with the complementary Hypex SMPS switch mode power supply module. So far, so off-the-peg.
But Merrill Audio has done more than simply buy the modules and bang them into a posh box.
Even with the power supply and amplification engine provided by another party, it still takes a leap of investment, R&D and manufacturing know-how in order to cough up something as functionally elegant, aesthetically understated and sonically interesting as the VERITASs. I’ve not heard the bare Hypex modules and therefore cannot offer informed confirmation that the Merrill monoblocks sound superior, but I’d bet this month’s salary that they do.
Each VERITAS chassis starts out as a 66 lbs billet of aluminium. The Hypex modules are relatively dinky, so minimal metal is milled away; just enough to provide an acoustically isolated chamber for each module. Merrill Audio doesn’t use the standard Hypex wiring loom to connect the power supply to the amplifier modules, instead using Cardas copper Litz for a naturally richer sound. Wettasinghe says this also exerts more control on the low end with lower efficiency speakers in the mid 80s or less. Cardas 11 AWG copper Litz is used to connect the output of the Hypex modules to the speaker terminals keeping the output impedance low for a very high damping factor while 19 gauge Cardas Litz connects the inputs. Wettasinghe notes that while skin effects are beyond the audio range the audio qualities of Litz are still evident. Other wires tried seemed darker in sound and softer in detail or delivered shorter decays.
The power switch doesn’t turn the VERITASs off. It leaves them in standby for, according to Wettasinghe, a less dry, less raspier sound. On the back of the amplifiers are balanced inputs only, IEC mains sockets and rhodium plated Cardas speaker binding posts of a sort I had not encountered before. They accept only spades or, if you really must, bare wire, and they tighten up to achieve a remarkable degree of grip. Talk about attention to detail; the VERITAS monoblocks even come with a sextet of Stillpoints that screw into their undersides and add further to the acoustic isolation provided by the massive aluminium chassis.
Wettasinghe outsourced mains cable design to Waveform Fidelity. The result is what now ships with every pair of VERITAS and it was with a profound sense of frustration that I learned I was not receiving a pair of the cables with the amps due to a temporary shortage of UK mains plugs at the manufacturer.
Ask $12,000 as Wettasinghe does for the VERITAS monoblocks and they’d better be well furnished and sound amazing. He clearly understands this and for what it may be worth I admire his insight and approach. In addition to exercising his own auditory faculties Wettasinghe has also made extensive use of focus groups of audiophiles to provide an independent sense-check. What the owner of VERITAS monoblocks hears is therefore not just the product of Wettasinghe’s own inevitably partial preferences but a middle ground that incorporates those of many people. This of course doesn’t make it right, but it does make it well researched, for what ever that might be worth. Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering how the VERITASs would sound if Wettasinghe had simply followed just his own ears and his own heart.
While they were in my possession the VERITAS monoblocks were used with a variety of speakers and amplification combinations. I wanted to give them the best possible opportunity to demonstrate their chops, so as well as using them in my own system at home for several weeks I also took them on a mini-tour, trying them with Maggie 1.7s, Wilson 6s, AN-E SPes, KEF 105 IIs, and Apogee Duettas fed by Audio Note, Acoustic Research, Cayin, Krell and Yamaha preamplifiers and a multitude of sources.
Wettasinghe observed that the VERITASs are notably sensitive to the choice of mains cord, but I found them to be no more or less so than most other kit that I listen to. I tried Kimber weave with the VERITASs, Audio Note Isis and my own go-to preference Cut Loose mains cables as well as plain vanilla kettle leads, Isotek and Transparent Audio. The Cut Loose gave, and by some margin, much the better results despite the fact that it was designed and built to complement tubes. It sounded open, airy and oh-my-word-this-is-good altogether better. The kettle leads just sounded bloodless.
With a signal to noise ratio of 126 dB the VERITASs are very quiet. They also go very loud, but even into a very benign and responsive load like my own reference 97 dB efficient Audio Note Es their speed and ability to portray dynamic contrasts was not notably superior to other solid state amplification that I have heard.
Of course, all appreciation of speed and dynamic contrast is relative and the VERITASs are certainly no slouches. People moving to them from lesser solid state amplification may well be bowled over by them.
I think that Merrill Audio is on firmer ground when it draws attention to the sound stage the VERITASs throw, and their neutrality. They are indeed benchmark in their subjectively accurate portrayal of scale and detail, while the palpability of instruments and voices is, in solid state terms, better than some solid state but less impressive than that achieved by much tube amplification and in particular single ended triodes. Nonetheless, I can hear – really hear– why the VERITASs have won such great reviews. They are, as far as I can discern, utterly and devoid of any kind of artifact that obscures what is recorded. Able to drive even difficult loads to ear-bleedingly loud, they are I think a creature naturally at home in cavernous North American lofts putting a lot of Watts up larger planar speakers, Magicos and the like. But that’s not to say that they’re not going to go down well with a lot of UK audiophiles too. The Merrill Audio three-pronged philosophy of neutrality, transparency and power is one that many people –perhaps the majority of people – subscribe to.
I didn’t ask Wettasinghe whether he’s sold any VERITASs to recording studios in the US but it would not surprise me if he has. Their veracity means that as a mastering suite tool they may well be peerless. As my pal the star gazer who runs Krells and Wilsons at his home observed after a VERITAS listening session: “I heard the colour of the drummer’s socks.” He was only partly joking.
When I took the VERITAS monoblocks on tour and they were used with the other front ends, other preamplifiers, other cables and other speakers more often than not they elicited the same initial reaction wherever we went:
“Hoo! Just listen to that detail! What a soundstage!”
And then people would begin to calm down and ask themselves whether they could adjust to VERITAS life long-term. Some said they could. Others said they could not. Haters gonna hate. Lovers gonna love. When I questioned people further they invariably revealed that their reaction was not in any way influenced by the amplifiers’ Class D-ness – but rather by their preferences for the way they want their recorded music presented. In others words do they buy the arguments for solid state amplification or do they lean towards the presentation offered by tubes?
For me, the VERITASs crystalise this issue that has long been at the heart of the audiophile debate; measurements or musicality. Do we want our audio systems to be utterly neutral windows on recordings, or might we accept and embrace the reality that what we actually want is our systems to be the final mix, enabling us to better connect to the emotion of recorded material?
Or, to put it another way – imagine the music as a book. Do we want our audio system to show us the words on the page under a bright light and a magnifying lens, or do we want to be read the story by someone with a great voice who can simply sweep us up into the drama? The VERITASs are firmly in the first camp – appealing directly to those who want neutrality and a forensic approach to music reproduction. It will be obvious to readers, even those for whom this is the first KevinF review, where my inclinations lie. Nonetheless, I hope it is also apparent that I expended blood and treasure in order to give the VERITASs a fair and even-handed review.
In my home system I played my usual catholic diet of material ranging from pop, fusion and modern jazz through classic symphonic, choral and opera. One recording that I feel illustrates so well the positive qualities that the VERITASs bring is Friday Night In San Francisco, the recording made in 1980 on the occasion of the first concert meeting between John McLaughlin, Paco De Lucia and Al Di Meola. Described on the liner notes as at once incendiary and delicate, dazzling and dramatic, it is a good recording of a quite exceptional concert. Through the VERITASs the three guitarists range right, left and centre out of the blackness, each one drawn with exceptional clarity on a soundstage that is spookily defined. As the trio lay into Mediterranean Sundance, Short Tales Of The Black Forest and on through Di Meola’s composition Fantasia Suite, the heat they generate as they swap blindingly fast calls and responses and take whirlwind solos really gets the blood rushing. The VERITASs are agile enough to make sense of the ultra fast chops and changes and their astonishingly detailed portrayal of the soundstage allows the listener to really appreciate the extraordinary individual musicianship that the three players demonstrate. Through the VERITASs this is not material that allows the listener to bask reflectively in glowing tonality and the subtle lingering decay of vibrating strings and wood; it’s a manic head rush; a competitive dash to the runout groove at the end of the record by three masters of the guitar at the peak of their powers. It is best played damn loud. The VERITASs took me on that wild ride and deposited me breathless and exhausted at the end of it.
So, how do I try to sum up these bold and interesting amplifiers? I think like this:
Merrill Audio has implemented the Hypex modules in a way that banishes once and for all any lingering doubts that Class D can cut it at the high end. The monoblocks don’t claim diplomatic immunity on the grounds of the technology they use; they simply ask to be judged on their merits as a serious high end solid state amplification option.
So, let’s also assume that you’re the kind of person for whom only the tightest of solid state bottom-ends gripped by a vice-like damping factor of 2,000 (yes, really) into four Ohms will do, and that it must be accompanied by a truly holographic soundstage and absolute sonic neutrality coupled with more than sufficient grunt to drive even the most unfriendly speakers loads to serious volumes.
Is that you?
Then I urge you to get a listen to the Merrill VERITAS monoblocks. They may well wow you to the point of swooning. You’ll be a lover that’s gonna love.
Discuss this review here
Merrill Audio VERITAS Monoblocks Specifications
- Power: 400 Watts at 8 ohms
700 Watts at 4 ohms
– 1,200 Watts at 2 Ohms
- Input Impedance: 100 kOhms
- Output Impedance: 3 milli Ohms
- Damping factor: 2,000 4 ohms
- THD: 0.004% at 200 watts
- Current: 38 amps typical max
- Frequency Response: 0Hz – 50kHz 0/-3db
- Gain 26db
- S/N 128dB
- 1 Balanced Input – Cardas XLR with Silver pins, Rhodium plate, Gold plated body
- 1 Remote Trigger. 12V for remote turn on/off
- 2 pairs of speaker outputs – patented Cardas Rhodium over billet Copper posts
- 1 IEC Furutech gold plated
- 1 Custom designed power cord for VERITAS by Triode Wire Labs, 10AWG high stranded copper wire, Cyro treated with red copper receptacles.
- 5 year transferable warranty
- Cardas RCA to XLR converters (optional)
- Short Circuit protection
- Over temperature protection
- Auto shut off in case of fault
- Dimensions: 17” x 12” x 3” without footers
- Weight: 33 lbs.
Merrill Audio LLC
+ 001 415 562-4434